David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Arbour Day: Our Past and Possible Future

Brandon Sun, May 7, 2018 – David McConkey

If this were a century ago in Brandon, today would be Arbour Day. The day was not only for planting trees, but also for celebrating a holiday. Looking at how the day was spent then is a glimpse into a bygone era. But Arbour Day could also be in our future.
Arbour Day originated in the 1870s in Nebraska as an initiative to plant trees on the bald prairie. By the 1880s, the day was being observed in Manitoba and other parts of Canada. In the years before and during the First World War, Arbour Day was usually on the first Monday in May. Most stores and government offices closed, at least for the afternoon.

“Today is Arbour Day throughout the province and forestry men are busy planting trees,” the Brandon Daily Sun reported on Monday, May 5, 1913. The paper noted that businesses had shut their doors at noon, city hall was closed and “Rosser Ave. looks deserted.” The court house was closed; the Sun reported – in the language of the time – that there were no cases before the magistrate, “not even a Galician drunk.”

In an ad in the Sun in 1915, the Patmore Nursery and Seed Co. suggested customers “phone your orders now for Arbour Day.” Patmore’s whole phone number? 773. Patmore’s Arbour Day specials included Manitoba Maples, four to five feet high, 10 cents each.

Arbour Day was also a time to plant special trees. On Monday, May 3, 1915, a birch was planted in Rideau Park. The tree was in memory of local educator Maj. Joseph McLaren, killed in battle a few days earlier at Ypres. One thousand people attended the ceremony.

Also on Arbour Day in 1915, boy scouts planted 10 trees on Victoria Ave. between Sixth and Seventh. The trees recognized King George and Queen Mary as well as other public figures.

In May 1918, a Sun headline announced, “King George School Pupils Plant Trees Named After Heroes.” Among the war heroes honoured with a tree at the school were British military commanders, nurse Edith Cavell and Brandonites Lt.-Col. James Kirkcaldy, Maj. Joseph McLaren, Nursing Sister S.P. Johnson and Dr. J.S. Matheson.

(Those actual tree plantings probably helped to birth a myth that trees had been planted along Victoria Ave. to honour veterans of the Great War. But the Victoria trees were ghosts. They existed only in the stories told in the city over a century.)

Arbour Day was also an occasion for fun and games. Among Arbour Day pastimes were shooting at the gun club, horse racing at the fair grounds race track, and matches of baseball, cricket and football. (In those days, “football” referred to the game known internationally by that name.)
An Arbour Day event hosted by the Brandon Hunt Club was described by the Sun in May 1900. Starting from the C.A. Rae barns at Third and Louise, 15 horsemen followed their hounds southeast into the countryside, stopping for lunch at Martinville. No fox was found, but in the morning the hounds ran down a jack rabbit, and in the afternoon – “after an exciting chase” – a wolf.

After the First World War, observance of Arbour Day went into decline. In May 1919, the Sun reported that some citizens planted trees “in accordance with the good old custom.” But there was “practically no sport of any special nature in the city today.” By the 1920s, Arbour Day had faded away.

But what about today? We recognize trees even more now in an era of environmental awareness and climate change. And trees still serve to honour and remember. Two million trees are now being planted in southern Ontario along the Highway of Heroes. The three-part goal is for remembrance, for environmental enhancement and for beautification.

If you would like to ponder trees as an amazing part of the natural world, check out the recent bestselling book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. It’s at the Brandon Public Library in print, ebook and audio book.

And Arbour Day itself is making a comeback. For the last 15 years, Arbour Day has been observed in Winnipeg on a Saturday in late May or early June.

Perhaps we will once again set aside a date at this time of year to take a break, to reflect on nature and to plant trees: Arbour Day.

* * * *
See also: 

Reflections on the Great War

Memories of War from the Brandon Cemetery

Ghost Signs Whisper of Stories from Brandon's Past

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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